Appellate Judge Dan Mancini wants to know how you'd like a knuckle burger.
"He is a coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy who hard-charges stock cars at 175 m.p.h. Mother dog! He is the lead-footed chicken farmer from Ronda, the true vision of the New South."—Tom Wolfe, "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!," Esquire, March, 1965
The Last American Hero is like an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard writ large. And I mean that in a good way. It's rooted in the same gleeful and exuberant anti-authoritarianism on display weekly during the Duke boys' successful television run, that muscle car- and denim-style of rebellion peculiar to the American South. But it also benefits from the presence of top-notch actors who deliver soulful, believable performances that skirt good ol' boy cliché.
Facts of the Case
Based on a lengthy 1965 Esquire profile article by Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff), The Last American Hero tells the tale of stock car racing legend Elroy "Junior" Jackson (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski). As the film opens, young Jackson is living a restless life on his parents' farm in rural North Carolina. His happiest moments involve eluding cops as he runs illegal whiskey in his Mustang fastback. His daddy (Art Lund, Black Caesar) is a moonshiner who, despite a number of stints in the county jail, can't abide the stultifying structure of a respectable job. Junior's brother Wayne (Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story) is following in their father's footsteps.
Whether running white lightning through the backwoods or participating in demolition derbies, Junior shows an almost preternatural talent for driving. When Elroy, Sr is given a year in jail for moonshining, Junior begins racing stock cars on an outlaw circuit in order to support his mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald, The Mango Tree). Soon enough, he makes the transition into professional racing. His fiery personality and independent spirit cause friction in the glamorous, big money, corporate sponsorship world of NASCAR. He forms a rivalry with Atlas Enterprises' driver Kyle Klingman (William Smith, Conan the Barbarian). The two men duel not only for the checkered flag, but for the affection of a groupie named Marge (Valerie Perrine, Superman). As Junior gains more NASCAR fame and prestige, he struggles to maintain his independence, though his daddy warns that relying on moonshining to pay for the cost of car parts and pit crews will only land him in jail.
In his Esquire piece, Tom Wolfe paints a colorful portrait of the rise of the American automobile in the postwar South, its liberation of the youth culture from its agrarian connection to the land. He talks extensively about stock car racing's earliest, outlaw days, and its eventual co-opting by Detroit automobile manufacturers who saw it as a perfect marketing tool. Director Lamont Johnson's (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) film doesn't handle any of this detail explicitly, opting instead to reel out as a fast-paced, highly fictionalized sports bio. The vivid texture of Wolfe's prose is there, nonetheless, resonating in the background. Above all, the young Junior Jackson of the movie is a kind of Robin Hood figure who stands against the big-money NASCAR takeover of racing. In this way, the picture is a paean to Southern rebelliousness that keeps its feet firmly planted in the general seventies zeitgeist of anti-authoritarianism and distrust of capitalism.
The film can be most faulted, perhaps, for failing to deal with Junior Jackson's controversial (among racing fans of the early sixties) move to corporate sponsorship under Ford. But it's a minor flaw, if it's a flaw at all. Presenting the hero of the story as an eventual sell-out would have better fit the generally pessimistic tone of New Hollywood cinema, but not the spirit of Wolfe's article—which was written around the time Jackson switched to Ford. It was Junior's reticent machismo as much as his moonshining that made him a racing hero. And the Ford controversy was a minor one at best. Playing it as a major act of capitulation and defeat would have given the story some needed symmetry and a more powerful final act, but it also would have been less historically accurate, and more divorced from Wolfe's writing.
The Last American Hero's screenplay is a slapdash of comic antics, gentle drama, high-speed driving, and conflict with the law that congeals around its anti-authoritarian themes. More than that, though, it congeals around the fine performances of its cast. Jeff Bridges is the foundation of the picture, delivering a magnetic, natural performance reminiscent of his turn in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, made just two years earlier. Bolstering Bridges' captivating work are predictably strong supporting turns by Gary Busey as Junior's earnest but none-too-bright brother Wayne, Ned Beatty (Nashville) as a shifty and thrifty outlaw derby promoter, and Valerie Perrine as a sincere, beautiful, but entirely loose groupie who pursues Junior as well as nearly every other driver on the circuit.
Character actors whose faces are more recognizable than their names round out the cast, each delivering a fine performance. Art Lund and Geraldine Fitzgerald give earthy performances as Junior's parents. Their fierce pragmatism and independence make a believable foundation for Junior's rebelliousness, freeing Lamont Johnson from a need to hammer home the point in too explicit a fashion. William Smith's Kyle Klingman is an excellent foil for Junior. Arrogant and dismissive of Junior's race track prowess, Klingman is less villain than fierce competitor. Even when he most riles Junior, we never dislike the guy.
These performances meld in order to create a detailed world of human interaction that transcends the yokel stereotypes so often on display in films set in the deep South. Mother dog!
Fox offers two presentations of The Last American Hero on a DVD-10 (a dual-sided, single-layered disc). Side A presents the feature in a full frame, pan and scan transfer. But let's pretend it didn't. What we're really interested in is Side B, which offers the film in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The transfer here is attractive. Colors are stable and accurate. Negative effects from digital manipulation are minimal, while detail remains mostly crisp. There's a bit of dirt, damage, and coarse grain here and there, but nothing out of line for a relatively low-profile film of the early seventies.
The default audio option is a two-channel presentation of the flick's original mono track. There's also an expanded stereo mix. Matrixed from the mono, it's slightly different but not better. Dynamic range isn't improved in scenes involving roaring race cars, and the film's music (which includes Jim Croce's "I Got a Name") doesn't benefit a whit. That said, both tracks are clean and acceptable.
The only supplements are a teaser and full trailer for the picture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While The Last American Hero should be commended for avoiding the ultimate sports film cliché—an Act Three showdown between its underdog hero, and his greatest rival—there is a narrative price to pay for its naturalism and focus on character. The movie doesn't so much end as it peters out, losing steam across its final ten or so minutes until the credits finally roll.
The Last American Hero is a surprisingly vibrant and engaging character entertainment from a director known mostly for his television work (if he's know at all). It's story isn't earth-shattering, but the uniformly excellent performances of its able cast make for a quick and enjoyable 94 minutes.
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